I Was Wrong — SO Wrong — About Alcoholics Anonymous
On addiction, recovery, and overcoming my contempt for the G-word
When it comes to cathartic experiences, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being proven completely wrong about something that was previously an iron-clad truism in your mind. Once you’ve truly wrapped your mind around said newly discovered truth and taken ownership of your prior wrongness, the feeling can be truly exhilarating.
This happened to me last week when, after nearly two years of sobriety, I finally found myself an Alcoholics Anonymous home group. Even before I walked through its door I had begun to suspect that my previous antagonism towards AA was somewhat unfounded, leading me to give the program a second chance. I am now only two weeks in and I have a sponsor, and am embracing this well-trodden road to real recovery.
But getting to this starting line has already involved a lot of mental jujitsu for this author.
It was just a little over two months ago that I published a piece here on Medium entitled My Year As An Angry Ex-Drunk, in which I told the story of my “recovery” — in other words the story I had been telling myself about it. In it I described my experience grappling with the emotional roller coaster that my newfound sobriety incurred, and in particular how volatile my temper became for the better part of a year. I also used the article as an occasion to castigate AA for what I saw as its dogmatic insistence that anybody like myself not in treatment was still a “drunk”, albeit a “dry” one. Here is how I put it:
I’ve never particularly liked the phrase “dry drunk.” For one, it seems to reinforce the centrality of alcohol in a person’s life, serving as a constant reminder of what they’re trying to part ways with. This has always been my main issue with AA (that and the whole God thing): as an ex-drinker, I sought to build a new identity that had nothing to do with booze and my past relationship to it. Yet AA participants still appeared to lean on alcohol as a necessary villain in their life plot, in the same way every Star Wars movie needs a Sith Lord.
Writing this article proved to be a life-changing experience, although not in the ways I had foreseen or hoped for. In the days and weeks following its publication, I received a steady stream of comments critical of my blanket characterization of AA and twelve-step methodology, including some who commented, rather pointedly, that my tone throughout the piece was still, well, pretty darn angry. Upon further reflection, I was forced to acknowledge that I was sounding like an angry person claiming to no longer be angry — rather like an obviously wasted individual claiming to be sober. Within hours of publishing the piece I was already doubting its veracity.
But then the real apocalypse descended on me — one which I describe in greater detail in an August follow-up to the aforementioned article, entitled When Your Addiction Recovery Stories Backfire. Within a week or so of publishing the original piece, I descended into a debilitating anxiety attack that brought back just about everything I thought I had overcome. Well, not everything — I didn’t drink, but I came dangerously close a couple of times. But otherwise, the angry hyena was back in the living room and everything once again felt like utter chaos. Less than a month after I arrogantly declared myself “recovered” it was painfully obvious that I was anything but.
After trying a couple of different non m-AA groups in town (read: a bunch of people talking about their problems) as a complement to one-on-one talk therapy, both of which proved unsatisfying, I decided — albeit reluctantly — to give AA another try. If I’m completely honest, I never really gave it much of a try in the first place; I halfheartedly attended a couple of sessions, got pissed off that people were talking about God, and never went back. This time I decided to give it an honest try, telling myself that I was just bleep out the dreaded G-word as it was uttered like some sort of internal radio censor.
While I’m loathe to make any grand pronouncements so early into the program, I can at the very least say honestly that the aforementioned three-letter word no longer bothers me. Not only that, I’m now positively annoyed with myself for having made such a big deal about a real non-issue. In retrospect, my knee-jerk atheistic antipathy towards the G-word was a convenience justification for not dealing with my stuff.
Until about a decade ago my attitude towards religious would best have been described as ambivalent. Then a family tragedy occurred, which transformed me into a militant anti-theistic atheist of the Hitchens/Dawkins sort. I won’t go into any detail about the tragedy in question, but the resultant hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness I encountered on the part of the church community in question was enough to make me want nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of organized religion ever again. To this day the experience still makes my blood boil, and for a long time thereafter any mention of the G-word was enough to make my blood pressure spike.
It was this animosity towards religion — and Christianity more specifically — that caused me to give AA a wide berth both times I quit drinking, the second of which endures to this day. After all, isn’t the Christian God so thoroughly baked into the AA cake that there’s no separating it from the “good stuff” in the program? I was aware of the growing phenomenon of AA Agnostica which operated based on a modified version of the 12 steps, which omits any mention of a deity, but alas no such group existed in my city and I certainly was in no position to start one.
I’ve since learned a few things about Alcoholics Anonymous that have radically changed my views on the organization, and have given this still pretty hardline atheist the mental wherewithal to not tie myself in knots over the G-word. Here’s what I’ve learned.
The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
This is #3 of the 12 AA Traditions, which are read out loud at the start of every meeting. I had heard these words spoken before but never truly internalized them. AA co-founder Bill Wilson (or Bill W. as he is popularly known) himself famously declared that there was no spiritual requirement for membership, and that the sole purpose of the organization was to “sober up alcoholics.”
No two AA groups are alike.
This is an important fact that I had never occurred to me. I had long assumed that Alcoholics Anonymous was a monolithic and dogmatic entity that clung slavishly to a methodology deeply imbued in Christianity. I’ve since learned that while certain chapters do indeed operate in this way, many (most notably the one I’ve joined) do not. Indeed I have yet to meet a person in my newfound home chapter who actually professes a belief in a supernatural entity, and indeed most share my experience of an initial hesitation to join an organization replete with God talk.
The 12 steps really aren’t all that Christian.
Here’s the thing about the modified versions of the 12 steps as used by AA Agnostica group: apart from expurgating the word God from the steps, they’re exactly the same. Given how easy an editing job this is, can the 12 steps truly be said to be “Christian”? In fact, other than the inclusion of the G-word in four of the 12 steps (and the capital-H Him in one other), there’s absolutely nothing obviously Christian or even religious about the steps. It’s a path to be best described as “spiritual” in a way the likes of Sam Harris would no doubt embrace inasmuch as it’s a surrendering to forces greater than oneself — spirituality in a broadest sense. Surely if this were truly a Christian program, Jesus and the resurrection would be mentioned at least once. Suffice it to say there are no such references.
And neither were AA’s founders.
While the evangelical Christian Oxford Group served as Bill W.’s primary inspiration for AA, the man himself was far more esoteric in his spiritual inclinations. A devotee of spiritualism and who corresponded with Carl Jung, Bill W. and his wife Lois were spiritual seekers who even went so far as to participate in experimental LSD trials in the 1950s together with Betty Eisner, Gerald Heard, and Aldous Huxley — who would later describe the AA co-founder as “the greatest social architect of our century.”
Of AA’s two founding fathers, Bob “Dr. Bob” Smith was the more religious — a practising Episcopalian, but even he was far from dogmatic in his spirituality, sharing with Bill W. an interest in the writings and ideas of Jung and William James. Indeed, the more one reads about the history of AA, the more any claim that the organization is “Christian” in any real way appears shaky. Apart from a few recorded references to the group as a “Christian Fellowship” by Bill W. and others, there is very little evidence that the group was ever explicitly Christian, and indeed as time progressed the two founders appear to have drifted further and further away from their original Christian moorings.
The word God is, at the end of the day, just a word.
It took finding an AA chapter I liked to realize this fact, but the word God is only as triggery or as stress-inducing as one lets it be. It’s just a word, a sound represented by three letters that human beings have assigned a cluster of meaning. Seen in this light, it seems foolish to let a single syllable derail a potential journey to real recovery. The 12 steps are powerful, daunting, scary stuff, but they are also a set of steps that require zero belief in space deities or other ridiculous fictions. In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that letting the word God get in the way of walking the path is a sad excuse for avoiding hard but necessary work.
Get over it. It’s just a word. I’m talking to myself of course — as well as other people like me who are dithering over their recovery. Quitting drinking is the easy part — you don’t have to do anything. Recovery is a different matter. Nobody becomes addicted to alcohol in a vacuum. Bill W. himself suffered from severe depression, as do many who succumb to alcoholism. Depression and self-hatred are more often than not inextricably tied to the reality of alcoholism, and in such cases stopping drinking merely exposes the open wounds. The 12 steps, while as imperfect as any human-invented system, now appear as good a path out of the darkness as any out there.
With that, I am now walking that path. I’m still a nonbeliever, but I’d rather be happy and emotionally healthy than on the correct side of every argument. You can be right and still be thoroughly miserable — there is certainly no shortage of grumpy atheists out there. Myself I would kind of like to be happy. It would be a refreshing change.